How a Yellow Cab Ride Created A Classical Music Connection

Thursday, March 09, 2017 - 12:00 AM

A photo of Ignaz Brüll and a French newspaper from Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim's yellow cab ride. A photo of Ignaz Brüll and a French newspaper from Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim's yellow cab ride. (Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim)

The first thing I noticed as I slid into the passenger seat of the yellow cab with my kids crowding into the back was that the radio was switched to WQXR. I could hardly help it: I’m a New York Times classical music critic. With a sideway glance I took in my driver, a middle-aged black man, and the French-language newspaper he shoved aside to make room for me. When he moved to turn off the radio I stopped him. “Leave it on,” I said. “I like this station.”

“Who is your favorite composer?” he asked, right off the bat.

“No fair,” I said. “Only one?” I ventured Beethoven.

“Too easy,” he said. “Though it's a good one.”

He said he’d been drawn to "heavier" fare recently: Mahler; Bruckner.

“I have a hard time with Bruckner,” I confessed.

“He’s heavy,” he conceded, “but there’s a lot of music there.”

He brought up Sibelius and suddenly we were ping-ponging Nordic composers back and forth.

I tried out the name Nielsen.

“What I’ve noticed with less well-known composers like Nielsen,” he said, “is that they come and go on the radio. There was a time, a while ago, when they played a lot of Nielsen.”

Did I know Brüll?

I was stumped. He spelled it out for me, with the two dots over the u. “His piano music sounds like Beethoven," he said. "You should listen to it.” 

We were fast approaching my neighborhood. I found myself wishing for slightly heavier traffic. 

He asked about opera. I told him I’d grown up in Brussels, that my parents took me to the Théatre de la Monnaie there. That I liked Mozart and Verdi. We switched to French. He said his favorite operas were those of Wagner, especially the  “Ring,” especially in the Met recording with James Levine.

I asked him if he went to concerts. Not these days, he said. Not with a daughter in college and a son who only just graduated. To pay off tuition he was now working six days a week, sometimes 12-hour shifts. 

“It's nice I get to listen to this,” he said, gesturing to the radio. 

My apartment building came into view. I thought of the two large bags of CDs I had packed up to donate to a conservatory. Would he be interested in a stash of recent releases?

“I won't say no,” he said, beaming. As we pulled up to the curb he asked whether I kept up my French reading.

“Not really,” I said. He offered a trade: my CDs for his copy of Courrier International.

“I’ll be right down,” I said after I’d paid the fare.

“I’ll wait all day if necessary,” he said.

After we had exchanged gifts we shook hands. Back in my apartment, I headed for the computer and YouTubed a piano sonata by Ignaz Brüll. It’s beautiful. You should listen to it.

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Comments [14]

Beth from Burlington

Chelsea, I not only teared up, I wept! The story of an African-American taxi driver teaching a music critic about music that, even as a devoted classical music lover, I have never known -- in the midst of what he goes through every day just trying to make a living and survive in an ongoing and growing racism that none of us can even imagine just touched me very deeply. WQXR, thank you for featuring this story and lending me hope and beauty.

Mar. 15 2017 12:40 PM
Pearl Saban from Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I live in Toronto, Canada, where we have our own beautiful 24-hour classical radio station, the New Classical FM, 96.3 FM, as well as other stations that have their classical music time slots. When I'm in the car, I listen to that.

When at my home office desk, working on my computer, I prefer to listen to WQXR. I do my freelance editorial work for a NYC-based publisher while I listen. How very fitting...

Love this story, and now it makes me want to take a NYC cab ride, too. The station's music definitely provides an oasis of calm amidst the hustle and bustle of NYC streets. . .and points beyond!

Mar. 15 2017 10:15 AM
Enid from Ridgewood NJ

Wonderful story! Et vous parliez français, tous les deux! Formidable. :)

Mar. 14 2017 12:13 PM
Zdenko Sulc from Island of Losinj, Croatia

Delightful! How I miss the City and yellow cabs! Yet, for 15 years now remaining with WQXR on my Adriatic island, steadfastly faithful...

Mar. 13 2017 09:52 AM
Susan Hochberg from NYC

Love the story. The cab driver who got me knew about Michael Fabiano, a still new operatic tenor just making a name at the Met. He joined the conversation I was having with a friend with whom I had just heard "La Boheme" with Fabiano subbing.
Meanwhile da Fonseca-Wolheim has been on my mind recently for her wonderful and spot on review of the John Adams celebration this past week by the New York Philharmonic and its new house quartet. Wonderful music making!

Mar. 13 2017 12:37 AM
Barbara from Greenwich village

This is a heartwarming story! Now to look up Bruell! Thanks!

Mar. 12 2017 07:43 PM
Chelsea from Listening to La Traviata from home on WQXR :)

This story made me tear up. Amidst the chaos of the city, coupled with a busy day with children, two strangers bonded and a shining glimpse of what the human spirit is capable of was displayed. In spite of the seemingly unending malice and fear New Yorkers and the world are currently experiencing, it was so refreshing to read about this beautiful moment. I am sure you will forever treasure the memory of your fast friendship. I loved this; thank you for sharing.

Mar. 11 2017 03:27 PM
Ken Johnson from Louisville, KY

What a lovely story. WQXR is, certainly, part of the "fabric" of NYC for a great many people. Its constant voice makes life better. It was so touching to read this story about the oasis amidst the cacophony of Manhattan traffic. And what a thoughtful gesture on the part of the writer to share the treasure trove of CD's.

Mar. 11 2017 09:41 AM
Rev Leslie from East Northport, Long Island, NY

Adorable story. Love it. Love NYC and all its hidden jewels.

Mar. 10 2017 08:05 PM
Stephen from Texas

I'm not surprised that a music critic didn't know the name or music of Ignaz Brüll. He's not exactly a 'household name' in the classical music world, but many of his works have been recorded. There are two very fine Piano Concertos, a Violin Concerto and a lovely Symphony, plus a bunch of solo piano music and other instrumental pieces.

Most music critics don't have a wide knowledge of repertoire because most classical performing organizations that they review don't offer a broad repertoire. Collectors are the only group of people who really know the repertoire.

Mar. 10 2017 10:45 AM
LEE APT from UWS-NYC

I LOVE WHEN I ENCOUNTER A TAXI OR VIA DRIVER WHO IS PLAYING WQXR. I FIND THAT MOST ARE FRENCH SPEAKING, AND WERE ORIGINALLY FROM HAITI. MY MOST RECENT ENCOUNTER WAS WITH A DRIVER FROM SENEGAL THOUGH. IT ALWAYS MAKES FOR LOVELY LISTENING, AND LOVELY CONVERSATION.

Mar. 10 2017 01:56 AM
Linda Kundell from Manhattan

Beautiful story. I rarely encounter cab or livery drivers playing classical music, and, of course I'm always appreciative of it. Now if only stores would play WQXR instead of the awful stuff with which we're usually assaulted!

Mar. 09 2017 01:19 PM
Cynthia Wainwright from UES, New York

I too have ridden with many New York cab drivers playing WQXR. I always thank them for playing "civilized" music. They all say it helps keep them calm in the crazy NYC traffic. I thank them again when I get out of the taxi and I leave an extra generous tip in the process.

Mar. 09 2017 12:16 PM
Fred Plotkin from The back seat of a yellow cab

I have encountered many wonderful New York taxi drivers who listen to WQXR. Many say it keeps them serene in city traffic. Many others tell me that they find they get bigger tips when WQXR is playing. I have noted that a lot of the WQXR listeners are French speakers from West African countries such as Senegal, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast.

Mar. 09 2017 12:52 AM

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